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Uzbekistan's Hidden Theaters

Some of Central Asia's best theater is going on behind the scenes – and over considerable odds. by Dengiz Uralov 10 October 2012

TASHKENT | The third Theater.UZ international theater festival just closed here, but for those who know the country's theater scene, the interest is elsewhere. While the annual festival only features state-approved plays, local independent venues struggle to stage some of the most accomplished, innovative theater in Central Asia.


The festival shows "the same theater we saw in Soviet times," the critic Dmitry Goncharov says. "Guests from the UK, Israel, Russia, and other countries who were invited this year brought plays that [offered] nothing new. We have world class theaters, known worldwide, but the festival prefers not to notice them."


Uzbekistan's theatrical pedigree dates back to 1976, when the late Tashkent-born director Mark Weil opened Ilkhom (Inspiration), the first independent theater in the Soviet Union. Though Tashkent never outlawed the theater, it still overcame considerable odds under communist rule to gain a cult following by staging experimental, provocative plays touching on everything from tyranny to religion.


uzbektheater2_350Founded in 1976 by Mark Weil, Ilkhom staged “Imitations of the Koran” last month in Tashkent.


Today, Ilkhom is internationally renowned, regularly touring the United States, Europe, and Asia. Its 37th season just opened in Tashkent with a full bill of original productions and six performances a week. But it, like Uzbekistan's other independent jewel, Eski Masjid (Old Mosque), has never been invited to the festival, run by Gulnara Karimova, the much-maligned daughter of President Islam Karimov.


"Most Uzbeks see Karimova as a greedy, power-hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way," U.S. diplomats say in the cables released by WikiLeaks last year. "She remains the single most hated person in the country."


The Harvard-educated Karimova has fashioned herself Uzbekistan's patron of the arts, partly, analysts say, to rehabilitate her image for a potential presidential bid after her father leaves office. She sponsors everything from film festivals to fashion shows and, as "Googoosha," just released a pop album. She even has a jewelry line.




Theater.UZ/2012, as it's known locally, ran from 1 October to 7 October and featured plays like the adaptation of Alexander Grin's novel Scarlet Sails, staged by the state-sponsored Youth Theater of Uzbekistan. But critics who are unafraid to speak openly say the festival billing is always banal and that Tashkent, a regime rights groups like Freedom House rank alongside Pyongyang, snubs independent Uzbek theaters in a cunning strategy to undermine them through irrelevancy.


"Ilkhom is too well known and popular abroad – otherwise the government would have ordered it closed long ago," Goncharov says. "But because officials fear the international exposure, they have chosen a different tactic: to ignore it. You can't read about Ilkhom in the state press, you can't see it on television or in Uzbek theater festivals. Though many foreigners only know Tashkent for Ilkhom, the government pretends it doesn’t exist."


The same treatment is applied to Ovlyakuli Khodjakuli, one of the most respected directors working in Central Asia today and founder of Eski Masjid. He has opened in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Russia – even Italy and France – but state media won't cover him. Khodjakuli doesn't even have citizenship. Born in Turkmenistan, the director fled to Uzbekistan in 1991, but authorities refuse, without explanation, to grant him citizenship. Today, he lives here as a stateless person.


"[Khodjakuli] is the most daring and interesting director in Central Asia. His performances of Medea, King Lear, Hamlet, and others are very fresh. He has also led many unique projects, including Aralash," Goncharov says, referring to an annual arts festival in Bishkek.


Uzbek ZarathustraA rehearsal of “Zarathustra,” which opens next week in Tashkent at director Ovlyakuli Khodjakuli's Eski Masjid theater. Khodjakuli is one of Central Asia's most respected directors, but Uzbekistan won't grant him citizenship.


But the director, who declined to comment for this article, has no permanent stage. People call Eski Masjid a "nomad theater."


Anemic funding is largely to blame. Eski Masjid and Ilkhom lack regular sponsors or, critically, support from the government, which backs the State Opera and Ballet Theater and the Uzbek National Academic Drama Theater, among other companies. Ilkhom may have survived for 36 years to become one of the few places in Uzbekistan where creative people can express themselves freely, without fear of persecution – a cultural home to independent artists, filmmakers, and musicians alike – but it's just surviving.


"Our worst problem is financial," says Boris Gafurov, who took over as artistic director after Weil was murdered outside his home in 2007. "The theater has no permanent sponsors, and ticket sales can't sustain it. We start every season wondering how to pay off our debt and how we'll find the money for the new season. The state doesn't pressure us, but it doesn't help us."


Still, state pressure is always a concern in a regime many describe as capricious. Theories abound that Tashkent had a role in Weil's murder. Though three Islamic extremists confessed in 2010, saying they killed Weil for staging a play they found offensive to Islam, skeptics counter that in 2001 the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Uzbekistan gave its official approval to the play in question, Imitations of the Koran. A source at Ilkhom who requested anonymity said authorities might have targeted Weil for touching on sensitive issues like homosexuality and religion.




The Visage Movement Theater, another unique company, is also on Tashkent's effective blacklist. Founded in 1982, it stages plays with disabled actors – working alongside their able-bodied colleagues – as a form of therapy. Its troupe of 40 includes actors with mental and physical disabilities, from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy, who stage everything from dance and improvisation to the classics.


"For the first performance, it was very difficult to attract viewers," Visage founder Lilia Sevastyanova says. "People were not willing to mix such terms as 'art' and 'persons with disabilities.' But [now] Visage is an integral part of the cultural life of Tashkent. We have full houses."


Like Ilkhom, Visage struggles to survive without a sponsor or state funding. And like Eski Masjid, it has no regular stage, instead relying on donated space for performances.


Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Theater.UZ/2012 did not admit Visage. Karimova's website says the festival invites acting companies from a variety of cultures in order to highlight "the best traditions of theater." Just not Uzbek theater.

Story and photos by Dengiz Uralov, the pseudonym of a journalist in Tashkent.
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